This work is sold with a photo-certificate of authenticity signed by Lou Laurin-Lam and dated Paris 21-7-86.
Wifredo Lam was born in Sagua la Grande, Cuba in 1902. Although he was educated partially in Cuba, he eventually won a scholarship from the Academia de San Alejandro to study in Spain. He joined the studio of the Spanish painter Fernando Álvarez de Sotomayor y Zaragoza where he studied in the mornings. This time was significant, as it allowed him to absorb the influence of classical, figurative imagery as well as of the work of his younger Spanish colleagues. Although he had not yet arrived in Paris, he was already interested in a simplification of form, which he began to explore more intensely in the late 1930s.
His early work shows Lam's synthesis of the powerful figurative work of his Spanish teacher and his earlier absorption of the simplicity of the humble life of Spaniards that had become part of his everyday experience. As he moved into increasingly international circles, Lam's work began to reflect the emerging planar style that would become his signature. The period between 1937 and 1940 marks a significant shift towards this style. In 1938, Lam moved to Paris and, through his friendship with Picasso, was able to make the acquaintance of other major figures including Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, Georges Braques, Paul Éluard, André Breton, Tristan Tzara, Michel Leiris, and Joan Miró. He was also introduced to Pierre Loeb, where Lam eventually had his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Pierre Loeb in 1939. In the same year, Picasso and Lam exhibited their work together at the Perls Galleries.
His style during this crucial year shifts from the decorative flatness of Matisse to a more forceful manner with vaguely Cubist aspects. Lam's introduction to Picasso, just one year prior to painting this image, marks an important moment for both artists. Michel Leiris described this important encounter between the two men as a particularly important one for Picasso. Picasso saw Lam as innately closer to the African culture that he so admired because of his African blood. Reading Lam as a kind of "insider," he admired what he perceived as Lam's authenticity, creating a closer understanding of African forms and their aesthetic possibilities. In fact, Lam's first real exposure to these forms and objects was through Picasso's collection and the encouragement of the ethnographer Michel Leiris.
The subject of this painting may be the artist's relatively new companion, the German researcher Helena Holzer, whom he met in 1937 when he moved to Barcelona. Lam seems to have been inspired by her image in more than a few works.(1) Indeed, a 1944 photograph of Lam with Helena, Pierre Loeb, and the Cuban painter Rafael Moreno Pascual (1887-1955) taken in Havana is revealing about Lam's love for Helena's hair. In the photograph, her long dark hair is in evidence principally because Lam is seen assisting her in placing her hair over her shoulder so that it can cascade down the front of her blouse. In his painting, Lam has made his wife's tresses impossibly long, their ends reaching beyond the edge of the picture plane. Her hand placed around the girth of her thick hair draws attention to its significance in the image and serves to underscore its allure. Cutting a dark diagonal against nearly the entire image, the hair is paramount, as all the other forms are reduced to their most elementary shapes, including the white shift that she wears. Helena's face is reminiscent of the African masks that were now prominent in Lam's visual experience. By the time they met, Picasso had already been collecting African objects for years. Encountering these objects for the first time, Lam was sensitive to both the abstract and the figurative possibilities presented by their reduced, yet figurative forms. Her almond shaped face features prominent eyebrows, painted as two thick, straight lines, a long, narrow nose, and eyes that are reduced to two mere slits. The reduction of facial features in this way will continue particularly throughout the 1940s.
As with other works from this period, the figures have been reduced to their most significant elements. The flatness with which Helena's figure is displayed is the result of influence from his fellow Parisians and his own figural studies, such as one from 1938 in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum which features the torso of a woman, also with long dark hair. In this gouache on paper version, the figure's body has been reduced to three large rectangular or trapezoidal shapes with red trapezoids for shoulders and two grayish circles as breasts. Building on this abstraction of the human form from various geometric shapes, Lam makes her figure a single, white form in this image. Her collar bones, like the shoulders in the earlier gouache, are also emphasized in red, this time in the form of a line that crosses her figure. The red not only adds a note of bold and unexpected color to the canvas, it also highlights and even dramatizes these bones at the very top of her torso.
As Lam's work continues to develop throughout the 1940s, the female figure will become an important and prominent form, becoming a signifier for ideas related to both the post-colonial condition of Cuba and the landscape of the same. During his Parisian period, Lam used the female figure as a way to begin to explore the possibilities of abstract forms and reduced colors and their abilities to carry a narrative. Her single figure fills the picture space with its enlarged and powerful form, as all background evidence is reduced to mere neutral color. This portrait presents an important exploration of the feminine figure, revealing Lam's early interest in African motifs, planar forms, and the sensuality revealed in an everyday act.
Rocío Aranda-Alvarado, Associate Curator, El Museo del Barrio, New York.
1) L. Stokes Sims, Wifredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde, 1923-1982, Austin, University of Texas Press, 2002, 10. Sims mentions specifically a drawing by Lam from 1940, a version of the Femme-Cheval series, which is reminiscent of Holzer's face.